The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 14, 2017

FEATURE ARTICLES
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Crime Against the State: Why Progressives Hate Homeschooling
Thomas E. Woods, Jr. - 02/14/08

German officials have complained about comparisons of their actions and rationales to those of Hitler. But consider the Führer’s words: “We have set before ourselves the task of inoculating our youth with the spirit of this community of the people at a very early age, at an age when human beings are still unperverted and therefore unspoiled. This Reich stands, and it is building itself up for the future, upon its youth. And this new Reich will give its youth to no one, but will itself take youth and give to youth its own education and its own upbringing.”

With which of these sentiments does Herr Drautz disagree?

All of this talk about countering parallel societies and integrating minorities into the population might have been drawn from the rhetoric of the American Progressive Era. In my book The Church Confronts Modernity, I chronicled an overlooked but central aspect of the Progressives’ thought: they sought to construct a new American ethic in which the citizen’s primary loyalties were to the “national community,” rather than to states and localities, and to a new, nondogmatic, nondenominational ethic instead of to any revealed religion. America, the Jesuits’ magazine, described the Progressive attitude this way: “You may hold any faith or religion you please, but then you must not belong to any specific sect or be bound by any dogma.”

For John Dewey and the Progressives, children in the new age needed to be taught procedural rules rather than substantial goods. In other words, they should be taught toleration, open-mindedness, and flexibility, for in this world of change and flux citizens must be readily adaptable to new situations. The last thing children needed, therefore, was unchanging religious dogma taught as truth. As William H. Kilpatrick said, “We must free our children to think for themselves. Anything else is not only to refuse to accept the facts as to the unknown changing future, but is at the same time to deny democracy and its fundamental demand that we respect other people, even our own children.”

Now it is one thing to say that since a great many belief systems coexist together in the United States, we must make an effort to devise some kind of common moral vocabulary by means of which we can speak to each other fruitfully as we tackle divisive issues in the public square. Whether or not such a thing is possible, the mere suggestion is not obviously foolish or contemptible; if a natural law that binds all men really does exist, it is at least plausible that people of diverse backgrounds might be able to recognize common values. But the Progressives were going much further than this.

Sociologist Albion Small spoke explicitly of the need to invent a new religion, a national creed that could unite Americans on essentials and lift them out of the dual parochialisms of geography and religion. “By 1915,” writes historian Eldon Eisenach in The Lost Promise of Progressivism, “Small is really codifying the results of a long-standing theological-ethical enterprise when he concludes that the symbolic centerpiece of this ‘new’ national religion is the now historically recovered ‘Weltanschauung of Jesus’ excavated from barbarism, superstition, church, and dogma.”

According to Eisenach, Progressives held that “all social knowledge deserving a hearing must be cosmopolitan in origin and national in import.” They “invented a conception of citizenship that stipulated that the possession of social knowledge entailed the duty of reflecting on and articulating ideas of national public good unmediated by party, interest, region, or sectarian religion” (emphasis added). No parallel societies allowed.

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